SUSU shines a light on the pioneering women that fronted Indonesia’s four waves of feminism
In February 1998, resistance towards Indonesia’s president, Soeharto, and his New Order regime reached boiling point. His military-dominated government was defined as centralised, strong and heavy-handed, and committed rampant human rights violations against political dissidents, resistance movements and, increasingly, women.
As the situation became more volatile, the regime implemented a standing order to shoot anyone suspected of plotting against it. And so, under the camouflage of a “concerned mother’s meeting”, the country’s first feminist journal, Jurnal Perempuan (JP), convened to help overthrow Soeharto’s government. It fell just months later.
But little has been written publicly about this crucial moment in the country’s feminist history, unofficially dubbed the ‘Milk Politics’ – and 21-year-old Indonesian media practitioner, Nikita Yusman, is determined to change that. Having graduated with a bachelor’s degree at the Lasalle College of the Arts in Singapore earlier this year, for her final project, Yusman produced SUSU – an intersectional feminist publication that platforms the multifaceted women of Indonesia‘s past and present.
“This pivotal role that feminists had in the transition to the democracy of today’s Indonesia is absent in historical books,” Yusman writes in SUSU. “Western scholars categorised it as merely a mothers’ movement, suggesting a reluctance in admitting that Asian women also comprehend feminism and are able to denounce repressive politics.”
The publication’s title, SUSU – meaning milk – honours these fierce feminist fighters of the late 90s and sets the tone of what's to come throughout its pages. “I [also] liked the dirty connotations of the word in Indonesia [‘susu’ in Bahasa Indonesia also means ‘breasts’]. It encapsulates how provocative the publication would be,” she adds.
Despite the strides taken in other parts of the world for women’s rights and opportunities, Yusman believes Indonesia has a long way to go. “The term feminism still often leaves a bad taste in the public’s mouth in Indonesia,” she says. “Besides the stereotypes of militant, angry women, feminists are frequently painted in the media as people who reject family values or hate men. There’s also the assumption that feminist ideas, thoughts and movements do not have social and cultural roots in Indonesian society and that they originated from the west.”
Yusman grew up in the small town of Bandar Lampung in Indonesia with big dreams of the “glitz and glamour” of the fashion industry and was always drawn to strong female characters. While she spent years yearning for something more than her small town, leaving for school in Singapore would bring her closer to it than ever before. “As an international student, I quickly realised how indispensable my history and culture are to me,” she explains. But it was learning about Milk Politics that galvanised her to start SUSU, as “it was so close to the May Riots of 1998 that shaped the lives of many Chinese-Indonesians, my family included.”
Even though Indonesia’s feminist roots stretch back to colonial times, when women took up arms to fight against the Dutch, and later, pursued greater education and voting rights, many would rather turn a blind eye to its contributions. Despite this, the movement has grown in the country, especially among younger generations. “Digital platforms that educate and empower have been mushrooming,” she says. “Female filmmakers whose work addresses women’s rights dominate the local cinema scene, which is all really exciting to witness.”
SUSU’s inaugural issue centres around four key stories that trace the progress of Indonesian feminism, including a tribute to late 19th-century women’s rights and education activist Kartini; the Women’s Journals Foundation; performance artist Melati Suryodarmo; and writer Ian Hugen.
“In chronological order, [these women] reflect Indonesia’s four waves of feminism. Kartini fought for education as one of women’s basic rights; the Women’s Journals Foundation tackled gender violence and polygamy issues; Melati Suryodarmo marked the new generation of intersectional feminist artists; while Ian is at the forefront of digital feminism in present-day Indonesia,” explains Yusman. “On a personal level, these women have taught me invaluable lessons, and I wish to honour them.”
Originally released earlier this year, Yusman admits that the reaction to SUSU has been “really positive”, albeit “nerve-wracking” when it first launched. “I wasn’t sure how the Indonesian audience was going to react. But, seeing SUSU getting recognition from Indonesian creatives that I have followed and admired for a long time has been surreal.” That praise has resulted in SUSU being shortlisted in two international photography festivals that will take place in Italy this month.
Yusman hopes for a second issue and believes there’s definitely a place for it – especially with the growing momentum of the feminist movement in Indonesia and around the world. “As an independent magazine, things are still uncertain,” she says. “I would love to continue SUSU and come up with more extensive and intensive research in the future. In the long run, I hope SUSU can grow to become a platform for up-and-coming female creatives in Indonesia.”